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2021 AP English Literature Exam Guide

13 min readfebruary 24, 2021


Your guide to the 2021 AP English Literature exam

We know that studying for your AP exams can be stressful, but Fiveable has your back! We have created a study plan that will help you crush your AP English Literature exam. We will continue to update this guide with more information about the 2021 exams, as well as helpful resources to help you score that 5. Create a Fiveable account and join our Discord to stay involved in all things AP exams! 😁

Format of the 2021 AP English Literature exam

This year, all AP exams will cover all units and essay types. The 2021 AP English Literature exam format will be:
  • Multiple Choice | 1 hour | 45% of your score
    • 55 questions
      • 5 sets of questions with 8–13 questions per set.
      • Each set is preceded by a passage of prose fiction, drama, or poetry of varying difficulty.
      • will always include at least 2 prose fiction passages (this may include drama) and at least 2 poetry passages.
  • Free Response | 2 hours | 55% of your score
    • 3 questions
      • A literary analysis of a given poem
      • A literary analysis of a given passage of prose fiction (this may include drama)
      • An analysis that examines a specific concept, issue, or element in a work of literary merit selected by the student

FRQ Scoring Rubric for the 2021 AP Lit exam

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Courtesy of College Board

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Courtesy of College Board

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Courtesy of College Board

When is the 2021 AP exam and how do I take it?

The 2021 exam schedule provides 3 testing dates for each subject between early May and mid-June. Paper or digital exams are offered, depending on the subject and exam date. The tests will be taken in person at your school unless your AP Coordinator has indicated otherwise. Here is what we know from College Board so far:
  • Administration 1 of the AP Lit exam is on May 5 at 8 am, your local time—this will be a paper test at your school.
  • Administration 2 of the AP Lit exam is on May 18 at 12 pm EDT—this will be digital, in school and at home.
  • Administration 3 of the AP Lit exam is on June 1 at 12 pm EDT—this will be digital, in school and at home.
You will have 3 hours to take the exam. We will have more updates from the College Board soon, but as of now, this is what we know! Create a Fiveable account to get updates on the latest 2021 exam news. 

How should I prepare for the exam?

  • First, download the AP English Literature Cram Chart PDF - a single sheet that covers everything you need to know at a high level. Take note of your strengths and weaknesses! 
  • Review every unit and question type, and focus on the areas that need the most improvement and practice. We’ve put together this plan to help you study between now and May. This will cover all of the units and essay types to prepare you for your exam
    • Practice essays are your best friends! The more essays you write, the more automatic the process will come, and the easier the AP exam will be! 
      • Try some of the past exam essays here
  •  Join our Discord channel to talk to real students just like you studying for this exam! We have TAs in each subject channel to support you this Spring. 
  • Finally, check out our live Cram events so that you can review for the AP Lit exam with a rockstar teacher and study socially among other students!  
    • Bonus: get the Feedback Pass to receive comments from AP teachers on all of your practice essays! 

Pre-work: set up your study environment

Before we begin, take some time to get organized. Remote learning can be great, but it also means you’ll need to hold yourself accountable more than usual. 
🖥 Create a study space.
Make sure you have a designated place at home to study. Somewhere you can keep all of your materials, where you can focus on learning, and where you are comfortable. Spend some time prepping the space with everything you need and you can even let others in the family know that this is your study space. 
📚 Organize your study materials.
Get your notebook, textbook, prep books, or whatever other physical materials you have. Also create a space for you to keep track of review. Start a new section in your notebook to take notes or start a Google Doc to keep track of your notes. Get yourself set up!
📅 Plan designated times for studying.
The hardest part about studying from home is sticking to a routine. Decide on one hour every day that you can dedicate to studying. This can be any time of the day, whatever works best for you. Set a timer on your phone for that time and really try to stick to it. The routine will help you stay on track.
🏆 Decide on an accountability plan.
How will you hold yourself accountable to this study plan? You may or may not have a teacher or rules set up to help you stay on track, so you need to set some for yourself. First set your goal. This could be studying for x number of hours or getting through a unit. Then, create a reward for yourself. If you reach your goal, then x. This will help stay focused!
🤝 Get support from your peers. 
There are thousands of students all over the world who are preparing for their AP exams just like you! Join our Discord channel to chat, ask questions, and meet other students who are also studying for the spring exams. You can even build study groups and review material together! 

AP English Literature 2021 Study Plan

🥞 Unit 1: Short Fiction I

Big takeaways:

Unit 1 is the first prose analysis unit, focusing on short fiction.  It helps to establish your prose analysis vocabulary, focusing on identifying and describing basic literary elements such as plot, narrator, and setting. This unit also gives the foundations for writing analyses of text, beginning with paragraph structuring and claim defense.

Definitely do this:

🎥 Watch these videos:
📰 Check out these articles:
  • 12 Classic Short Stories: Short stories of literary merit to stretch your analysis muscles
  • Short Fiction Unit Guide by Laura Walton
✍️ Practice

🎸 Unit 2: Poetry I

Big takeaways:

Unit 2 is the first poetry analysis unit, focusing on everyone's favorite figurative language devices -- metaphor and simile.  Because poems often have a specific form, this unit also begins analysis of form/structure and also looks at contrasts in a text (which create the complexity that the exam expects you to analyze).  All of these poetic elements, though, are being analyzed for their function in the poem -- this unit helps you practice looking for why authors make the choices that they do.  
This unit continues the work of Unit 1 in developing paragraphs that establish a claim and provide evidence to support that claim.  It’s more important that you can write a stable, defensible, claim-based paragraph at this point than it is that you can write an entire essay (that might not be as strong).

Definitely do this:

🎥 Watch these videos:
  • Literary Device Review: An overview of some literary devices that you may have forgotten, or an introduction to some new ones that you want in your analysis vocabulary.
  • Defending a Claim: Before practicing your paragraphs, watch this stream for guidance in building a claim from the passage in response to a prompt.
  • How to Read a Poem: A stream dedicated to developing poetry reading skills, including a useful acronym (SIFT) for prioritizing important elements of a poem.
  • Annotating for Understanding: This stream guides you through the annotation process, making sure that you are annotating purposefully, and developing your own library of symbols.
📰 Check out these articles:
  • Poetry Overview: Our Fiveable guide to the poetry analysis question -- what to expect and what you need to do to respond effectively.

If you have more time or want to dig deeper:

🦄 Unit 3: Longer fiction or Drama 

Big takeaways:

Here we go with the novels!  Because the exam’s literary argument essay (also affectionately known as Q3 in the Lit circles) asks students to analyze a novel-length text, it’s important to get practice on analyzing novels or plays (did someone say, Shakespeare?). This unit boils down to paying closer attention to character and plot, with a sprinkling of setting analysis.  Because novels are longer than short stories, not only can authors spread out the creation of literary elements and go deeper, but you can see more about how it’s done.  
In terms of composition, this unit starts discussing the development of a thesis statement!  So now we can establish a thesis, and then support it with a paragraph (or two).  This means we’re also starting to create a line of reasoning that is introduced in the thesis statement, and supported in the body of your essay.

Definitely do this:

🎥 Watch these videos:
📰 Check out these articles:
  • Fiveable study guide to the Literary Argument prompt
✍️ Practice:
  • Outsider Q3 Practice: A Fiveable original prompt for practicing claim-making and claim defense.  It’s only one paragraph, too!

If you have more time or want to dig deeper:

  • 💎 Check out John Green’s YouTube channel Crash Course for help analyzing some English teacher novel favorites.  These don’t substitute for reading, but they help when you’re done.
  • 📖 Read this Ultimate AP Literature Reading List from Albert.io to see what you’ve read, or what you might want to read. You might even find them free online, or you can support your local library.

🥞 Unit 4: Short Fiction II

Big takeaways:

Because of the way that the AP Lit units are structured, we spiral skills and text types, so this is phase 2 of short fiction analysis.  While the first short fiction unit was focused on identifying and describing elements, now you’re being asked to explain the function (that why again) and describe relationships.  
This unit also asks you to start analyzing how those relationships and elements are created by authors.  That means you are reading more closely for diction and syntax and paying more attention to how a speaker/narrator’s perspective is shown to you.
We’re still working on defensible thesis statements and building commentary to make clear connections between our claim and the evidence.  This is what builds the line of reasoning and earns a 4 in evidence and commentary on the Lit rubric.

Definitely do this:

🎥 Watch these videos:
  • Prose Analysis Prompt Deconstruction and Strategies: Before you read the text, make sure that you know the task before you, and you’re ready to read with that in mind.
  • Q2 Thesis and Introduction:  There are some exam-taking tips in here, from a college freshman who conquered the exam.  She also discusses forming a thesis and an introduction that works. Quickly.
  • Q2 Evidence and Commentary: Practicing creating commentary to respond to the prompt efficiently.  This stream uses practice prompts to show the process of reading a text with the prompt in mind to select evidence while reading.
📰 Check out these articles:
  • Short Fiction Overview: Revisit this guide!  Read the section on “How to Read a Short Story.  Like, Really Read It.”

If you have more time or want to dig deeper:

  • 💎 Check out this stream on creating a "boot camp" that was originally meant for teachers, but gives guidelines and suggestions on how to dive into short fiction.
✍️ Practice

🎸 Unit 5: Poetry II

Big takeaways:

We’re going back to poems! This unit asks you to “identify and explain the function” of various poetic elements and devices.  All at the same time. Those literary devices you learned in Poetry I might come in handy here, but the analysis is more about why the author made those choices about repetition, reference, comparison, etc.
In order to select the most significant, “relevant, and sufficient” evidence to support your line of reasoning from your thesis, you have to know the function of the personification or metaphor or imagery.  Ask yourself, “Why would the author write ____ instead of ____?” This helps you analyze the connotations of the choice, and therefore the function in the text.
By now, we’re writing a thesis plus paragraphs.  This is also an opportunity to work on the organization of your essays (hint: organizing by the device is neither efficient nor sophisticated; try to find a shift or two in the poem and use them to develop your paragraph chunks.

Definitely do this:

🎥 Watch these videos:
  • How Form Creates Meaning: Learn about poetry-specific choices authors make, and what elements of form look like in practice.  Also, explore a couple of common forms and why they might be used.
  • Open Poetry Study:  An opportunity to practice some of the skills from “How to Read a Poem”. 
  • Q1 Evidence and Commentary: Follow the process of reading a poem and selecting evidence in real-time.  You can have an essay before it’s through!
  • Form and Function, Part 2: A deeper dive into how the structure of a poem impacts its meaning.  
  • The complexity of Poetry: This is an opportunity to look specifically at how poets create tensions and complexity in their work.  Since this complexity is always a point of analysis on the exam, you can study how it works, and how to write about it

If you have more time or want to dig deeper:

  • 💎 Browse through the Poetry Foundations resources for students, including annotations, poem guides, podcasts, and poet studies.

🦄 Unit 6: Longer Fiction or Drama II

Big takeaways:

Because novels are longer stories, we can look at more elements at a time.  That’s what this unit wants from you -- examining speaker perspective and reliability, the formation and function of literary or contextual symbolism, characterization, character relationships and contrasts, the function of plot events, etc.  All at the same time. 
What you need to know: The bottom line of reading for Q3 is the meaning of the work as a whole or theme.  And you might not fully understand what that is until the novel or play is finished, but you can start to build ideas around what BIG IDEA the author is addressing.  Your job is to keep track of how characters, plot, and setting contribute to the discussion of this big idea (like greed or isolation or jealousy or love or anger or insanity).

Definitely do this:

🎥 Watch these videos:

Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) Resources

🎥 Watch these videos:
  • Multiple Choice Intro: an introduction to the AP Literature multiple choice -- an overview of the weights, number and types of questions you will encounter, with some tips for practice and preparation.
  • Prose MC Strategies and Practice: covers all aspects of the Multiple Choice section of the AP Lit Exam, including tips on-time efficiency, annotation, and picking the best answer choice. This is followed by 2 sets of practice passages and questions and explanations for each of the provided answer choices.
📰 Check out these articles:
✍️ Practice

Exam Skills 

🎥 Watch these videos:
  • Breaking Down an Exam Prompt: A discussion of how to break down an AP Literature exam prompt into smaller questions. We end with some do's, don'ts, and common pitfalls for students writing AP Literature essays.
  • Commentary and Sophistication FAQs: Review the criteria for earning maximum evidence/commentary points and the one sophistication point from the rubric. Next, read scored examples and see what they earned in those two categories.
✍️ Practice

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Free Response #1: Poetry
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Free Response #2: Prose Fiction
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Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ)